BOOK THE FIRST
The next morning Stephen is at work in the factory. The government has taken great pains, Dickens tells us, to gauge the capacity of work the machines are capable of producing, but it has ignored the human beings and their suffering.
Some readers feel that Dickens's frequent interruptions are intrusive and delay the action of the story. Do you find these passages preachy or persuasive? Remember that his audience would be reading about issues that were controversial and that affected their daily lives. Dickens's passion for these issues is understandable if you've ever felt strongly about a contemporary issue.
At lunchtime, Stephen goes to Bounderby's house. Bounderby owns the mill where Stephen works. Bounderby is eating lunch and is surprised to see Stephen; there has never been any trouble with this worker (or "hand") before.
Stephen tells the story of the hideous woman. She's his wife, whom he married nineteen years ago. But she began drinking and sold the furniture and clothes to pay for her habit. Despite Stephen's attempts to cure her, her condition worsened. She would wander off, lead a loose, whorish life, and return. Five years ago he paid her to stay away permanently, and he began to resume a normal life- until last night.
Bounderby has heard of Stephen's bad marriage. Mrs. Sparsit asks if the trouble was caused by a difference in Stephen's and his wife's ages.
Why do you think Mrs. Sparsit asks this question so pointedly? And why does Bounderby seem sheepish when she does? This small detail hints at a future plot development.
Stephen wants to divorce his wife, and Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit are shocked. It can't be done, Bounderby tells him. But Stephen has read of wealthy people ending unsuitable marriages. Why can't he?
NOTE: Divorce in the mid-nineteenth century was almost always the privilege of the rich. Many lawmakers felt that the lower classes didn't need easy divorce, that there was no great demand for it. Dickens had a personal resentment against the divorce laws. Because of their complexity, he was unable to end his own marriage to his wife Catherine in order to marry Ellen Ternan, a woman with whom he was deeply in love. Some of his personal frustration found a voice in Stephen's dilemma (although lack of money was not Dickens's problem).
Stephen is frustrated by Bounderby's stubborn attitude. If Stephen were to hurt his wife or desert her or marry another, a law would punish him. Why is there no law to help him out of this terrible situation?
Stephen's contempt for the law angers Bounderby, who tells him that the law is not Stephen's concern. Millwork is his concern. Marrying that woman was just a bad piece of luck that he'll have to live with.
This scene dramatizes the relationship between management and labor. Coming to ask for help, Stephen only gets accused of being a troublemaker. He should stay in his place, he's told, and make the best of his bad luck.
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